Deconstructing Systematic Theology: What’s the Point?

31 Oct

Introduction

On this, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, I thought I’d do some reflections on theology. I’ll begin by posing a question:

What is the purpose of theology?

Now to be clear, we need to distinguish right away what I mean by “theology.” In its broadest sense, “theology proper” comes from two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word). In other words, theology in its widest understanding involves talking about, or teaching others about, God.

In this case, however, I’m referring specifically to systematic theology, as opposed to, let’s say, biblical theology, dogmatic theology, practical theology, etc. What’s the differences between all of those?

Defining Systematic Theology

Let’s begin by examining a few working definitions of “systematic theology.” According to an article written by Dr Wayne Grudem (himself a noted systematic theologian) on the evangelical website The Gospel Coalition, the answer is as follows:

“Systematic theology means answering the question: ‘What does the whole Bible say to us today about any given topic?’

It means searching the Bible to find all the verses pertaining to a given topic of study. Then, we put all the verses together to understand what God wants us to believe.

‘Systematic’ means ‘carefully organized by topics.’ Thus, it’s different from random theology or disorganized theology.”[1]

Here’s a second definition, according to Jack Wellman of The Christian Crier on a post in Patheos. Systematic theology is, well, systematic:

“A definition of something that is systematic involves a system, method, or plan like a systematic course of reading or having systematic efforts in a program of study. It is typically presented or formulated as a coherent body of ideas or principles and in the case of theology it is a sub-discipline of studying the Word of God and the associated doctrines that appear from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.”[2]

“Doing” Systematic Theology

Note the commonalities between these two statements: systematic theology, approaching and ordering its topics in a systematic and rational way, seeks to find out “what the Bible teaches” about any given topic, right across its entirety—from Genesis to Revelation.

In other words, if we wanted to do some systematic theology, we would begin the task by first posing the question (as in, for example): “What does the Bible teach about the Holy Spirit?” Secondly, then, we would proceed to look up every single verse in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, having to do with the Spirit, and try to understand what those texts say about the Spirit in each passage.

Thirdly, once that task is complete, we would compile essentially a database of topics on what we’ve discovered about the Spirit in the entire Bible. From that compendium, we would finally construct a series of propositional statements about what we think the Bible teaches on the Spirit, and from those efforts would finally come our systematic theology.

The aim of such an approach is to arrange religious truths from the Bible in an ordered way, and then present them in a rational, systematic fashion. This is how we end up with entire books of systematic theology. If you look at the table of contents in most of them, they begin with such topics as: revelation, the Bible, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and so forth. Every topic, of course, is broken down into subtopics: the person, nature, and works of Christ, for example, under the broadest heading of “Christology”—what that theologian believes the entire Bible teaches about Christ.

Deconstructing Systematic Theology

There are a few problems, however, inherent within systematic theology, the way in which it treats the Scripture, and its subsequent applications in real life.

We can identify at least five problems:

  1. Is Scripture merely a compendium of teachings on a wide variety of topics? The entire approach taken by systematic theologians over the centuries builds on an Aristotelian platform of reason. How did this come about? As the early church transitioned from largely Jewish to Gentile leadership, its new leaders sought to contextualize the teachings of the Bible into a Gentile world. According to Pratt, “This transition of leadership led to very significant changes in the ways Christians constructed theology. As Gentile theologians sought to minister the gospel in their Gentile world, they began to explain and defend their faith in ways that were relevant for the Greco-Roman culture at that time. They began to describe Christianity in terms of the Hellenistic philosophies of their day.”[3] Thus over the centuries, theologians such as Aquinas and others made use of Greek philosophical categories by which to organize not only theological topics, but indeed their entire approach to the Bible was shaped by the view that essentially held that the Bible was little more than an answer-book for theological questions. All that remained was for them to discover, through exhaustive searches and arranging of topics, what the Bible taught on any given topic, and then systematize that into an ordered whole.
  2. Systematic theology generally overlooks scriptural literary genres. Taken together with the above approach, the fact that Scripture comprises a huge range of literary forms and genres (such as narrative, poetry and discourse), is largely ignored by systematic theology. And why should it concern itself with those literary forms and genres, if the aim of studying the text is to uncover what the Bible teaches on any given topic, and then shape those into a series of propositional statements? It also tends to ignore what is termed biblical theology, which tends to take a more holistic approach to (for example) an entire book of Scripture (the theology of Ezekiel), or a section of books (the theology of the Pentateuch). Rather, much of systematic theology treats Scripture as a gold mine, the aim of which is to descend into its depths and bring forth “nuggets of truth,” all the while ignoring the original context (both historical and literary) of the original passage or book from which it was taken.
  3. Systematic theology can lead to incredible levels of divisiveness and intolerance. Historically, what we see in terms of the application of systematic theology has not always been very good or helpful. Perhaps it is human nature, but it seems that once someone believes that he or she has the “corner on the truth about God,” taken from church doctrines, it is that much easier to identify the errors in someone else’s belief system. Observe, for example, the dichotomous thinking displayed by Wayne Grudem. In his construct, there is a clear and major difference between true theology and false theology. He warns that Christians need to be on their guard, because “if false teaching comes into the church—if people lose sight of true theology—then it can be harmful and turn people away from the faith.”[4] But who’s to say that what Grudem believes is the truth? Centuries ago, many American Southern preachers proclaimed loudly from the pulpit that God had ordained the institution of slavery—with attendant proof-texts to back up their dogmatic assertions. Moreover, the very way of thinking can become incredibly rigid, dogmatic and inflexible in a conservative evangelical view of how to do systematic theology. Grudem asserts confidently, for example, that “Contradictions aren’t acceptable in the study of systematic theology, since there aren’t any contradictions in the Bible.”[5]
  4. An overly-rigid approach to systematic theology can lead to an inflexible, intolerant, judgmental form of toxic Christianity. While there isn’t necessarily a completely straight line between the two, in many cases one can see that there are many Christians out there who treat people terribly—both inside and outside the church. This sort of behaviour is a corollary of points 1-3 above, and tends to come about when Christians believe that they–and they alone–possess “the Truth” (with a capital T). How does this happen? They can be so assured that they have the corner on the Truth because people like Grudem, and their pastor, tell them so. Weekly sermons oftentimes merely serve to reinforce what the listeners already believe, and they can certainly find a textbook, website or article of teaching about systematic theology that backs up their potentially narrow view. Thus, it becomes that much easier to a) judge (or at least argue with) other Christians who disagree with them over certain doctrines and b) try to proselytize others into believing their particular version of Christianity and core doctrines.
  5. Finally, if systematic theology has the corner on The Truth, how come there are so many denominations who believe incompatible and different “Truths”? For example, there are many who argue the doctrine that “all Christians should/must speak in tongues.” In fact, some believe that speaking in tongues is evidence of a person’s salvation, and will have many attendant proof texts to back up their position. And yet, there are many on the total other end of the spectrum who believe just the opposite. Dr John MacArthur, for example, teaches that not only have tongues ceased to operate as of the 1st century AD., but that all those who currently “speak in tongues” are, in reality, being controlled or influenced by demonic powers. Thus, the alleged tongues are in fact a demonic manifestation meant to fool the tongues-speaker into thinking he or she is being spiritual, all the while being controlled by demonic powers. In a 1991 sermon, for example, MacArthur admits that although tongues could (in the charismatic tradition) actually just be a learned behaviour, he asks of Pentecostals who believe they are speaking in tongues: “Why is the emotional high in the initial ecstatic experience harder and harder to duplicate? No, it’s significant to note that Pentecostals and Charismatics can’t substantiate their claim that what they are doing is the Biblical gift. There’s really no evidence to prove it. There’s no evidence that it’s language. You say then, what is it? Could be demonic, could be satanic.”[6]

Conclusion

The above observations on the nature of systematic theology, and some of its attendant after-effects demonstrate that both its rationalist basis, and subsequent toxic applications, can be incredibly damaging. This deconstruction of theology leads me to at least three concluding observations.

One should question, first, whether the Bible is indeed a “repository of truth-statements” to be discovered by the theologian. Reducing the Bible to a mere “answer-book” does violence to the original contexts and literary genres, and makes one question the very nature and purpose of the text itself. In addition, it overlooks the very formation of the Bible itself; many books were not allowed into the canon, but what if they contain truths about God?

Catholics include the Apocryphal books in their Scriptures, for example, but most Protestants don’t. So, which group is right about what they say they believe, based on the evidence available to them? Or to put it another way, what if Paul was wrong about some of his assertions? Can we even frame such a question, and what are the implications if he was incorrect? Stating dogmatically and assertively that “the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God” doesn’t necessarily mean that every word in it is factually true, or that authors couldn’t have made mistakes. Despite Grudem’s confident assertion that “the Bible doesn’t contain contradictions,” one must surely wonder if this is indeed the case.

Second, a corollary problem with a view like Grudem’s is this: evangelicals tend to believe that their hermeneutic is also the correct means by which to interpret the text, which in turn leads to a correct understanding of God—the aim of theology. Postma proclaims, for example, that “Christian doctrine is the teaching about God that comes from the proper study of God.”[7] And what exactly does that “proper study” of God refer to, and how does one know if he or she is making use of it? The fact that so many denominations and individual Christians vehemently disagree on the interpretation of multiple passages, and doctrines, proves conclusively that there is not surely one “proper means” of biblical interpretation.

Third, the idea that the believer possesses “The Truth” has led to all kinds of historic and appalling abuses of people by Christians. To list but a few examples: in the 11th century, the Crusaders felt totally justified in their slaughter of Muslims because they were “infidels” guilty of desecrating the Holy City of Jerusalem; the Albigensian Crusade in southern France in the 13th century destroyed the Cathars, who were branded heretics by Pope Innocent III; the Spanish Inquisition tortured and murdered thousands of “heretic” Moors and Jews over the centuries; and today, although we cannot burn people at the stake, Christians can be just as toxic, hateful, judgmental and divisive when it comes to disagreements over various doctrines.

I conclude with the question with which this post began: what is the purpose of theology?

So much of problem with it, it turns out in the end, is that in making use of doctrine, so many Christians are susceptible to falling into the trap of confirmation bias, or “wishful thinking.” What is confirmation bias?

According to an article by Heshmat in Psychology Today, he explains that “Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.”[8]

Confirmation bias, for example, may involve the practice of heaping up proof-texts and dogmatic doctrinal statements that serve to prop up one’s prejudices, biases, and presuppositions. The problem with systematic theology is that it offers an all-too-convenient shortcut for someone seeking to do just that.

Bibliography

[1] Grudem, Wayne. “What’s Systematic Theology and Why Bother?” The Gospel Coalition (14 May 2016): https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/whats-systematic-theology-and-why-bother (Accessed 31 Oct. 17).

[2] Wellman, Jack. “What is Systematic Theology?” The Christian Crier (16 Sept. 2015): http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2015/09/16/what-is-systematic-theology/  (Accessed 31 Oct. 17).

[3] Pratt, Richard L. “What is Systematic Theology?” Third Millennium Ministries http://thirdmill.org/seminary/lesson.asp/vs/BST/ln/1 (Accessed 31 Oct. 17).

[4] Grudem, “What’s Systematic Theology?”

[5] Grudem, “What’s Systematic Theology?”

[6] MacArthur, John. “Speaking in Tongues.” (29 Sept. 1991) Grace to You https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-61/speaking-in-tongues (Accessed 31 Oct 17).

[7] Postma, Scott. “The Problem with Theology.” Scott Postma (05/02/2014) https://scottpostma.net/2014/05/02/problem-theology/ (Accessed 31 Oct. 17).

[8] Heshmat, Shahram. “What is Confirmation Bias? Wishful Thinking.” Psychology Today (23 Apr 2015) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias (Accessed 31 Oct. 17).

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